The dismal state of marriage among Black couples and the impact on Black children are fueling new research and reframing the national discussion about family.
Jabari Colon’s 5-year-old daughter Ayana leads a promising life. She attends a good kindergarten, resides in a nice neighborhood, lacks none of the essential material things, and gets her pick of age-appropriate cultural and social events in her Pennsylvania town. Yet, when she falls in step with other cheerleaders for the local pee-wee football league, Colon, a single parent, notices how much his daughter stands out.
“I see her clinging to the grown-up females, the other cheerleaders’ moms. She’s naturally outgoing, but seeing her, clinging, very much concerns me,” says the 30-yearold assistant director of admissions at Cheyney University.
The legal custodian of his only child, Colon never married his daughter’s mother, who lives in Virginia and spends time with their daughter sparingly, Colon says.
Reared in a household with married parents, Colon knows parenting solo isn’t ideal. As the number of people choosing to marry has plunged during recent decades, the tally of children living with one parent and having limited or no contact with the other has soared. Attuned to the hazards that such separations impose upon children but also upon parents who, studies show, fare physically and emotionally better in a thriving partnership, researchers around the country have been eyeing anew the state of marriage and the wellness of families outside of the marital construct.
Hampton University, as one example, inaugurated in September a National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting by hosting its two-day National Summit on Marriage, Parenting and Families. There, Hampton researchers released their “marriage index,” citing what they view as troublesome trends. The tally of married Black people, aged 20 to 54, slid from 64 percent of the total Black adult population in 1970 to 39.6 percent in 2008, a period when marriages for all races declined from 78.6 percent to 57.2 percent. During the same period, the number of births to married Black couples dropped from 62.4 percent to 28. 4 percent, while the respective figures for all races were 89.3 percent and 60.3 percent.
Just 29 percent of Black children lived with their married parents in 2008. Many children living in single-parent homes face sometimes staggering obstacles: They are more likely to endure poverty, 50 times more likely than children in two-parent homes to be abused and they tend to perform worse academically.
“There is a worsening crisis, and this crisis not only has implications for our children but for men and women in our community,” says Dr. Linda Malone-Colon, Jabari Colon’s mother and the Hampton University psychologist who founded the new center. The Institute for American Values, a New York think tank, is Hampton’s main research partner.
A National Discussion
For its part, the Princeton Universitybased Fragile Families and Child WellBeing study, launched in 2007 and continuing through 2010, is probing and collecting data from 20 cities on the lives of 5,000 children, two-thirds of them born to unmarried parents.
Concurrently, related research from Yale University, released at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in August, re-confirmed the much-bemoaned marriage prospects for high-achieving Black women. Those born after 1950, according to that longitudinal study by Yale’s Center for Research on Inequalities and the Life Course, were twice as likely as White women to never have married by age 45. Given their preferences for a Black mate of similar academic and workplace pedigree and the comparative shortage of men fitting that profile, many of those Black women have forgone marriage and motherhood.
The complexity of issues surrounding Black marriage and family is fueling more research but also reframing the national discussion about family. Gaining momentum since the 1990s welfare overhaul, that reframing takes into account racial and class distinctions. It aims to help establish policies and programs that ultimately enhance living conditions for parents and for children adversely affected by nonmarriage or noncontact with one or both of their parents and to uphold strong two-parent households as a worthy model.
“Marriage is still a viable alternative. But to get there, we must first understand what it means for boys and girls to grow up with two parents who are ruthlessly dedicated to kids and each other. We have to get convinced of the value of that. Having other people (outside the Black community) quantify that for us is not enough,” says Dr. Ronald Mincy, a Columbia University social policy and social work professor and director of its Center for Research on Fathers, Children and Family Well-Being.
Mincy is a co-founder and co-investigator of Princeton’s Fragile Families study. Thus far, its various findings include:
– Compared with married parents, single parents tend to be younger by an average of five years. Three-quarters have a high school diploma or less education, while 3 percent have a college degree.
– Children reared in stable, cohabitant homes display more behavioral problems, including aggression, anxiety and depression, than those in stable, married homes.
– Unmarried fathers are more likely to be jobless and suffer health problems that hinder their employability.
Says Dr. Waldo Johnson, an associate professor in the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration and a Fragile Families co-investigator: “We’re trying to make the case that the labor market, in many ways, shapes the context for parenting for many men.”
Deadbeat, Dead broke
A forthcoming book Mincy has co-authored is about the economic reality and prospects for low-income men, six of 10 of whom are fathers. Of course, some are deadbeats, shirking their financial and other parental obligations. But a good portion of them are dead broke, Mincy adds.
Policymakers and lawmakers recognize that the latter group must be dealt with in a manner that benefits them and their children. As an outgrowth of that, several states are reducing the amount of delinquent child support owed each time a father pays down that debt. Another outgrowth includes projects such as the Center for the Urban Family in Baltimore that trains men in parenting.
As a next frontier, Mincy says researcheradvocates are pushing for single fathers something akin to the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, a $50-billion-a-year subsidy that mainly goes to single moms.
“If we’re going to have fathers in the picture, we have to make sure they own up to their responsibility and that they are not so severely suffering the effects of poverty,” Mincy says.
Agreeing with him is David Popenoe, professor emeritus at Rutgers University and co-founder of the National Marriage Project. His research concludes that men who do not meet a certain economic threshold, in a sort of misplaced shame, opt out of parenting altogether, rather than show up with empty pockets.
“When I started this work back in 1980, the academic world didn’t regard it as a significant issue. The push then was to explore and accept family diversity,” Popenoe says.
iage index provides researchers with additional insight into the state of Black couple
“Today, even far left academics are saying two parents are better for children. What’s happening is kind of a sorry scene, and we need to get a handle on it.” Hampton’s marr relationships.
“We’re beginning to be much more sophisticated, and much more comprehensive in our research, looking at things like the level of conflict in relationships, the level of communication, how supportive two people are toward each other and how much of a support network they have,” Malone- Colon says. “There are a lot of things that make for intimacy and levels of intimacy in a household. We will be discovering what components are there and are not there and begin to develop programs around that.”
Researchers say studies on marriage are about helping children who can suffer the consequences of failed relationships. The consequences are dire, says Elizabeth Jefferson, a 2009 Hampton graduate. She shared part of her story during September’s national summit.
“Oh man, it was hard,” she says of coming of age under her grandmother, while her absentee mother abused drugs and alcohol. Her father was not around at all.
“I remember seeing him once but it is a very vague memory. For a long time, I had this vision of our family being reunited the way they do it on Maury or Montel,” she says, referring to the television talk shows.
“Of course, it didn’t happen like that … But what I dream for myself is getting married and having kids. I strongly believe in love because I didn’t see a lot of it growing up. There are so many things, even now, I wish I could say to my mother but cannot.
I feel, with my own kids, that I can change things.” Colon expresses a similar sentiment. And his mother backs him up on that.
“It’s courageous what he is doing but I wished something very different for him and my beautiful granddaughter,” Malone- Colon says.
“Hampton’s new marriage center is a progood marriage program to the extent that we know children do best when they are raised in healthy, married families. We’re not trying to push someone into marriage if that’s not what their heart desires, and I want no child to feel less than if they’re born into a single-parent home. But there’s a myth out there … that marriage is not what Black people desire when, in fact, most of us want it very much. The problem is that we’re having a hard time getting there.”